Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
Strange daze: Joe Ahearne
Joe Ahearne is one of the best writer-directors working in British television genre fiction today. In just a decade, his reputation has been established directing his own or others’ scripts through contemporary vampire drama Ultraviolet, supernatural series Strange and Apparitions, science-faction documentary Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets and Hitchcockian thriller Trance. All have startled with their originality, intelligence, intensity and visual flair, and have borne Ahearne’s signature of the fantastic grounded in the everyday.
After graduating with a physics degree, Ahearne moved into editing, documentaries and short film production whilst developing his writing. Film festival exposure led to a relationship with World Productions and producer Tony Garnett, who liked Ahearne’s treatment for a new contemporary vampire film drama but wanted to give him some professional experience first. The opportunity to write and direct episodes of twenty-something legal drama This Life (BBC, 1996-97) that followed was therefore a testing ground before what would become his genre breakthrough, Ultraviolet (1998).
Here, Ahearne’s fundamental desire was to plant the concept of Ultraviolet firmly in a believably real setting, considering something biblical (to which he would return with Apparitions) or political, specifically the then-current Northern Irish ‘troubles’. The latter would have created a parallel conflict running alongside the human/vampire drama and would also have been based on ideas of trust and a hidden enemy.
However, development suggested a series would be more likely to be picked up than a single film, and with this confirmed Ahearne ultimately determined that another common television drama type, the police procedural, would provide the necessary foundation. With these matters resolved, a six-part vampire series was accepted by Channel 4 head Michael Grade, and retained by his replacement Michael Jackson. Initially Ahearne was not due to direct every episode, but the quality of his work and his intimate relationship with the script led him to do so, fully supported by World Productions.
In his plotting, Ahearne made a conscious attempt to “do something that was serious, not camp. No vampire jokes and not Gothic.” His script therefore eschewed every cliché of the genre, including fangs, capes, bats and females in distress.
Reasoning, too, that if vampires really did exist and had been hunted for centuries, “the government would know about it and they wouldn’t be running around with mirrors and garlic and crucifixes”. Ahearne painstakingly assembled rational, scientific explanations for the common tropes of the genre, drawing directly on his science background.
Thus carbon bullets replace wooden stakes, garlic only works as a defence because of the antibacterial qualities of its constituent compound allicin, and it is not sunlight per se which Ahearne’s vampires are averse too but a specific wavelength within it, one which would also give the series its title – ultraviolet.
In addition to this, vampire subjects not only cast no reflection in mirrors, a point that assumes critical plot importance on occasions and led logically to Ahearne conceiving a video-assisted vampire-detecting gunsight, but they cannot be seen on video or television, their voice cannot be transmitted by phone or recorded and their fingerprints may not be taken. A wealth of real-life medical detail also permeates the series, with vampire concern over blood contamination a crucial storyline. And whilst Ahearne stops short of exploring every aspect of their physiology, we do learn that they do not breathe, have a detectable heartbeat or eat.
In a final effort to break with convention the actual word ‘vampire’ never appeared in the script, replaced by the subtly allusive but also thoroughly scientific ‘Code V’ (‘code five’). Channel 4 would honour this in its publicity material (although producer Bill Shapter suggests straight fear played a part), billing the series as “a millennial take on age-old fears”.
Ahearne was, then, able to use this radical format to address an extraordinary number of traditional issues – maternity, love, loss, faith, the afterlife and belief – whilst still pursuing the main story arc. Concerns of the day – abortion, immigration, global warming, AIDS, even paedophilia – were also seamlessly incorporated.
A central tenet of Ahearne’s approach to character was an even-handed portrayal of the “leeches”, as human Rice calls the Code V subjects, with motives apparently honourable and actions reasonable. Indeed, before the true endgame is revealed, the early episodes achieve near moral equivalence between human and Code V with, for example, their experiments on humans in Sub Judice balanced by Rice’s casual statement that any hybrid baby would be welcomed by Angela March for examination. Such differing viewpoints from rounded, ambiguous characters on both sides, especially flawed ‘heroes’, gives the series its dramatic depth. From this flows a thorough exploration of temptation, building to a climax in which each human character has something to gain from a Code V victory.
By these means Ahearne generates questions in the viewer’s mind that have few easy answers.
Technically, Ahearne understood and followed a golden rule for genre fiction – that, having created a particular world, one must remain true to it throughout. He thus weaves his carefully-considered scientific justifications for vampire behaviour into each episode, allowing the viewer to build an understanding of their abilities and limits just as the team fighting them does, and these are never contradicted merely because it would be convenient for the plot at a given stage.
Ahearne also trusts the viewer sufficiently not to feel the need to over-explain. In the first episode, Michael Colefield’s eventual understanding of the Code V threat comes to him obliquely, as it does to the audience. As Susannah Harker commented to the current author, “it keeps the viewer thinking.”
Though an atheist, Ahearne’s deep interest in and knowledge of theology is also at the core of the series. The final revelation from John Doe/Paul Hoyle (Corin Redgrave) that there is no afterlife and that “we’re the source of all religion” is a disturbing one for those with a faith, and perhaps only a non-believer could have managed to address it so adroitly. Ahearne would return to this with his next self-scripted genre series.
It is this deeply thought-through construction of plot allied with intelligent and wide-ranging knowledge and research that mark out Ahearne’s writing. He then brings storylines alive with highly credible dialogue, often sharp and shot through with nicely mordant humour. In Ultraviolet, all of this was deliberately underplayed by an excellent cast, particularly Philip Quast as Pearce Harman, Idris Elba as Rice and Redgrave.
Directorially, Ahearne shows great skill and confidence. He makes very effective use of London locations and extensive night shoots. Each episode contains at least one major action sequence. None are superfluous and all emerge organically from the scripts, often revolving around identification of a Code V subject. Here Ahearne plays with vision and images, setting up complex scenes in which an optical reality is not always what it seems and which often prove to be brilliantly written and smartly directed exercises in double-bluff. Though fully justifiable in the context of the series, Ahearne’s knowing handling of a visual medium subverting itself is reminiscent of Hitchcock, an acknowledged influence which would reoccur in one of Ahearne’s later projects.
Ahearne also showed himself more than capable of directing straightforward suspense well, as with the episode five drama of Vaughan trapped in a warehouse facing certain death and shown to be seconds away from choosing suicide. His accomplished handling of visual effects, especially where these involved the emerging digital realm, would also lead to directing the scripts of others.
The final component in Ultraviolet’s success was Sue Hewitt’s lush, haunting score. Part orchestral, part electronic, its main themes are critical to the sequences mentioned above.
After writing and directing six episodes Ahearne felt the story had come to a natural end with a defined conclusion, and resisted extending the series. It was, he considered, “a high-concept thing and you burn that up much more quickly, I think”. Ahearne also feared the tiredness that afflicts over-extended series and the danger of self-contradiction. The practicalities of the production itself, executive concern over the cool tone and Ahearne’s availability also militated against more.
As it is, Ultraviolet remains perfect proof that intelligent adult science fiction on British television did not die with Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass stories. It was perhaps fortunate to debut at a time which predated the explosion of (mostly American) television science fiction, fantasy and horror series (one of which, True Blood, would star Ultraviolet’s Stephen Moyer), but even today it impresses immensely. And Ahearne would ensure that a sequel of sorts would appear in the future.
Ahearne’s next work was a single film he wrote and directed in 2001 for broadcast on Sky television and a possible theatrical release. Entitled Trance, it was a blackly-comic drama in which a gang of art thieves fall out after one of their number, entrusted with the temporary safe keeping of the Goya painting they have stolen, subsequently loses his memory. Susannah Harker reappears as a hypnotherapist engaged by the gang to help retrieve the painting. It was a role written specially for her.
Ahearne describes Trance as a romantic thriller but it also plays with reality again, this time psychological rather than corporeal. It could also be described as ‘Vertigo meets The Manchurian Candidate’ thanks to its blend of Hitchcock and mind games; Ahearne is happy to agree. “I love all his stuff,” he told the current author at the film’s premiere in 2002, “and ripped it off wherever I could!” As for John Frankenheimer’s classic exploration of paranoia, “It’s a great film [though] I wanted to do a film about hypnosis that didn’t involve killing”. Its TV broadcast delayed until 2004, Trance never was released theatrically and is not available on DVD.
Also in 2002 Ahearne returned to the BBC when he directed the pilot of Strange, a quirky X-Files-style mystery series created and written by Andrew Marshall. Its demon-hunting premise appealed to Ahearne, and chimed with his own ideas for a future series of his own. Generally well-received, a series was commissioned for 2003 and Ahearne returned to direct several episodes including the effects-heavy Dubyk, whose vampiric elements were co-incidental since Marshall had not seen Ultraviolet. Ahearne nevertheless reckons it one his favourite episodes because of this and its concealing plot twists.
Continuing to be busy, 2004 saw Ahearne bring to the screen another television project all his own – Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, an ambitious imaginary docu-drama depicting an epic space mission of the future around the Solar System.
The principal cast of Ultraviolet; Jack Davenport (as Michael Colefield), Susannah Harker (Dr Angela March), Idris Elba (Vaughan Rice), Philip Quast (Pearce Harman) (World Productions/Channel 4/the-medium-is-not-enough.com)
Mars and beyond, in Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets (BBC/cumbriansky.wordpress.com)
Ian Richardson, Richard Coyle and Samantha Womack (nee Janus) in Andrew Marshall’s Strange (BBC/zone-sf.com)
The cast of Trance in one of the very few stills available. From left, Neil Pearson, Susannah Harker, Philip Davis, Sam Callis and John Light (Sky/World Productions/Cable Guide)